XI
you are not logged in
Opinion

Is It Time Games Tackled Disability Issues?

Fair representation.

Like so many ideas for articles, this one came from a discussion. In particular, a discussion regarding the Paralympics and the exceptional feats being achieved by disabled athletes.

The London 2012 Paralympics are enjoying a positive reception and high ticket sales in the UK, as well as much more exposure for athletes with disabilities. So why wasn’t there a Paralympic game or at least some Paralympic DLC for the London 2012 game?

As the discussion went on, it was discovered very few disabled characters are represented in games, Joker from the Mass Effect series possibly being the most prominent. Sometimes characters have limbs missing, as some excuse to strap a weapon to the place an arm used to be, or they’re augmented to replace lost dexterity with super-humanity but rarely in a manner that attempts to address the issue in any meaningful way.


Katawa Shoujo is a visual novel about dating disabled women.
In the UK there are approximately 11 million people who are registered as having an impairment, disability or as suffering from a long term illness (Source). According to recent estimates the UK population is around 62 million, which means 18 per cent of the UK has some form of disability. The USA has a disabled population of 54 million people (Source), which is 19 per cent of the country’s population.

So why is it that the wave of narrative-driven games, ostensibly targeting realism, have ignored such a high percentage of our population?

It’s not necessarily imperative to have lead characters who suffer from a physical or mental disability, although that would of course be a huge step. But could we start with the near 20 per cent of the population being represented in open world titles? Almost one in five Americans has some form of disability and yet Liberty City is peculiarly bereft of wheelchairs. If our games fail to even show disabled individuals living in the world alongside our often unfeasably abled protagonists, what hope is there for a leading role?

And wouldn’t a disabled protagonist offer new and interesting opportunities to engage with and learn to understand the difficulties that can be faced in our world? Why do we cram our videogames with invisible barriers when there are opportunities to use very real barriers that are simply ignored?

This can probably be answered by what games have traditionally been: a form of escapism. All of us have probably used games at some point in our lives to get away from things, to use as a stress release and to temporarily remove ourselves from the worries of the real world.

Games allow us to be things and experience things we can’t experience in everyday life. You can be an assassin scaling buildings in 15th century Italy, a soldier fighting off an alien threat on a faraway planet or an adventurer hunting dragons. These characters are usually at the peak of strength and mental fortitude: the common idea of something as close to perfection as we might ever hope for.


Revolver Ocelot had a disability but it wasn't a major concern during gameplay.
However, gaming is now at a stage where the industry is trying to be taken more seriously as a legitimate form of storytelling and transmission of ideas. Games have explored a huge variety of issues from the horrors of war to the delicacies of relationships but disability is rarely touched upon. When it does occur for a protagonist, it can be fixed quickly.

If you lose a limb in Fallout 3 you might slow down. You might not see so clearly for a while. Worry not: a few stimpaks or a Doctor’s bag and you’re back to full health in less time than it takes to sell your scrap metal to a librarian.

It may be time that games looked at both physical and mental disabilities seriously and force the player to deal with any limitations or liberations that those situations might entail.

Gaming is in a unique position when it comes to being able to put across ideas. Films, TV series and documentaries can be invaluable for shining a spotlight on disabilities and their effects. But only games can give us an interactive experience.

Developers could work with individuals and organisations to portray those with physical and mental disabilities in a realistic and engaging way. We’re not talking about rocket-powered wheelchairs, crutches with deadly poisonous projectiles or a mental illness that causes people to see through walls (although, how cool does all of that sound?).

Game development might need to widen horizons and accept that it will be challenged, as all creative endeavour should be. We have an opportunity to put real situations into our interactive entertainment and fair, respectful inclusion for a fifth of the population doesn’t seem like too much to stretch for.

Read more:
38 Comments
  1. AG2297
    Community Manager
    Since: Feb 2009

    In Metal Gear Solid: Peacewalker one of the characters is wheelchair bound (Otacon’s Dad). This ends up being used against him though as he is thrown down some stairs by the villain but before that I don’t believe they make any big deal about it, it’s just “normal”.

    Whenever I try and think of a game with a character with a disability though it almost always seems to end up with the disability being replaced by some cool kind of gadget e..g Liquid Ocelot and Adam Jensen (Deus Ex: HR) turning it into a fun game mechanic.

    Comment posted on 04/09/2012 at 12:16.
  2. Aran Suddi
    Member
    Since: Sep 2011

    It’s been interesting to read the different ideas and reactions to this article, and I’m happy it has sparked a discussion. Also credit has to go to Peter for helping me express the ideas I had.

    Comment posted on 04/09/2012 at 12:38.
  3. Kitch
    Member
    Since: Aug 2008

    Didn’t one of them god-awful Tony Hawks games have a kid in a wheelchair? Also a protagonist in Killer 7 was also wheelchair bound.
    I think a game along the lines of Heavy Rain featuring either a deaf or blind main role would work really well.
    Either publishers haven’t been asked or disabled people don’t want it.
    Out of curiosity, was this piece written by or does TSA have any writers with any disability?

    Comment posted on 04/09/2012 at 12:41.
    • Aran Suddi
      Member
      Since: Sep 2011

      Apart from needing glasses I don’t consider myself to have a disability. I’ve grown up surrounded by disabled people as many members of my family work in the private care sector.

      Can’t speak for other staff members though.

      Comment posted on 04/09/2012 at 12:45.
  4. fs
    Member
    Since: May 2012

    I remember Snake losing an eye in Snake Eater, when you viewed in FP there was a slight impairment to the left where the patch was over his useless eye.
    I saw that as more of a cool little feature they added in for that extra bit of detail, not a comment on the troubles of disability, either way, it shows that it can be implemented into games without taking something away from the story.

    It’s not easy though. Most genre’s employ characters that are all powerful, or atleast they are stronger than the average human being, so to include a disabled character as say, the main character or a playable character atleast would be very difficult to implement. I can only really see it working in games that strive for total realism and where mundane activity is a normality for the story, say for instance GTA. When I think about it, there are quite a few games where NPC’s are disabled, like Liquid Snake from MGS2 and onwards, Jeff Moreau or ‘Joker’ from Mass Effect, The Maiden in Black from Demon’s Souls, Peter Stillman wasn’t disabled but claimed to be in MGS2 so read I suppose from that perspective Kojima definetely used disability in his story.

    Comment posted on 04/09/2012 at 12:45.
  5. The Lone Steven
    Never heard of him.
    Since: May 2010

    MGS has had some characters with some sort of disabiltiy. Hell, you could say that Snake ends up with one in MGS4 due to him having to supress his nanomachines in order to function. And they are all done well.

    I think the main reason why games don’t tackle this is because if they don’t do it in a way that would please the media, the developer/publisher would recieve a lot of flack. Imagine if GTA5 had a disabled antagonist. The papers would be in an uproar. However, it is possible to do an antagonsit who has some form of disability. I won’t mention the name of the character due to it being a spoiler but he is done well. And you may even pity him for the ironic twist in DX:HR

    I believe gaming should tackle disabled or with some form of disabilitiy characters but not in an open world setting. Mainly plot heavy games such as MGS, FF(okay, they tend to be open world but i suspect FF can do it in a way that is acceptable) etc..

    Comment posted on 04/09/2012 at 12:54.
  6. fs
    Member
    Since: May 2012

    My comment didn’t post ARGHH!! Write it again then.

    Basically, I don’t think many genre’s allow video games to ever use a normal everyday man who is disabled as a main character, only an NPC. My reasoning for this would be that the majority of games i’ve played, bar a few, have a main character that is different to the average human being. They are superior, or become superior they are stronger than the normal and thats half the reason why we like main characters because when you play as them you are doing things you couldn’t normally do.. infact, we the players are all disabled in comparison to the majority of main protagonists in video games. Even in games such as Call of Duty, or Battlefield you are a soldier and these games strive for realism. A disabled person wouldn’t be on the battlefield fighting on the frontline. Games like GTA for example do allow for this sort of character, although, even in this case, a game that sets out to capture the natural flow of a real city, it would be difficult to implement a disabled character as the main character. The only time I can remember a game even touching on this is in Snake Eater when Snake loses an eye, when a player uses FP view, you can clearly notice the patch over his eye and it does impair you vision of the game – but thats only a very small part of the gameplay.

    NPC’s it works, because they aren’t playable and we don’t take as much interest in them. We don’t play as the therefore we don’t have the same attachment IMO. Games all over the spectrum have used disabled NPC’s of which are of a disability of somesort. As mentioned in the article Ocelot has his arm severed, then we have The Maiden in Black from Demon’s Souls who is blind, Jeff Moreau (Joker) from Mass Effect who is in a wheelchair and Peter Stillman (in the view of the gamer) is disabled for a long part of MGS2 until it is realised he’s lieing.

    Unless you have a game, like Sim’s for example, that wants the player to simply re-create life as they wish then i can’t see disabled main characters working, simply because the relationship between the gamer and the character wouldn’t function as well as if it were a superhuman (which is usually the case)

    Comment posted on 04/09/2012 at 13:02.
  7. tactical20
    Member
    Since: May 2010

    Not sure if Grand Theft Wheelchair qualifies as ‘tackling disability issues’.

    Comment posted on 04/09/2012 at 13:18.
  8. tactical20
    Member
    Since: May 2010

    The turtle in Sly Cooper is a wheelchair user I believe!

    Comment posted on 04/09/2012 at 13:19.
  9. fs
    Member
    Since: May 2012

    My comment doesn’t seem to have been posted, certainly not on my screen. I can only think its an error with my web browser.

    Comment posted on 04/09/2012 at 14:17.
  10. fs
    Member
    Since: May 2012

    Basically, I don’t think many genre’s allow video games to ever use a normal everyday man who is disabled as a main character, only an NPC. My reasoning for this would be that the majority of games i’ve played, bar a few, have a main character that is different to the average human being. They are superior, or become superior they are stronger than the normal and thats half the reason why we like main characters because when you play as them you are doing things you couldn’t normally do.. infact, we the players are all disabled in comparison to the majority of main protagonists in video games. Even in games such as Call of Duty, or Battlefield you are a soldier and these games strive for realism. A disabled person wouldn’t be on the battlefield fighting on the frontline. Games like GTA for example do allow for this sort of character, although, even in this case, a game that sets out to capture the natural flow of a real city, it would be difficult to implement a disabled character as the main character. The only time I can remember a game even touching on this is in Snake Eater when Snake loses an eye, when a player uses FP view, you can clearly notice the patch over his eye and it does impair you vision of the game – but thats only a very small part of the gameplay.

    NPC’s it works, because they aren’t playable and we don’t take as much interest in them. We don’t play as the therefore we don’t have the same attachment IMO. Games all over the spectrum have used disabled NPC’s for example The Maiden in Black from Demon’s Souls was blind, Joker from Mass Effect is in a wheelchair, as mentioned in the article Ocelot is missing a hand, couple of characters in MGS are in wheelchairs do to old age so that doesn’t really count but I guess its close, thats Zero and The End. So I think its clear that games do sometimes employ disability as feature in games. I just can’t see a disabled playable character ever having the same connection with the gamer as an abled body one. Unless he had sufficient abilities to make him superior to average – therefore is he really disabled?

    Comment posted on 04/09/2012 at 14:22.

Latest Comments